by Liz Thach, MW and Natalia Velikova

The advent of the pandemic caught the world off-guard, creating intense panic in food and beverage hoarding in countries around the world. This very human survivalist response extended to wine purchases, with a 66 percent increase in US off-premise sales at the end of March 21, 2020—the first primary week of lockdown, according to Nielsen. Once the panic died down, the wine still showed strength, with sales up 30.8 percent by May 16, compared to that time last year. 

One important question now is how much will off-premise wine sales decrease (if at all) given that the country is opening back-up, with restaurants and winery tasting rooms slowly coming online? Another equally important question is, how did wine consumer purchase behavior and motivation change during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown compared to before the pandemic, and will it create lasting changes in how consumers think about and purchase wine? With this in mind, a joint study was developed by researchers at Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute and the Texas Wine Marketing Research Institute at Texas Tech University to understand this interesting phenomenon.

Wine Consumer Demographics 

Almost 900 US consumers who completed the survey, 55 percent were male, 44 percent were female. Respondents were geographically dispersed throughout the country, with 30 percent from Western states, 20 percent from the Midwest, 30 percent from the Northeast, and 20 percent from Southern states. Age demographics, based on year segmentation provided by the American Generations Report, included 8.2 percent Matures (born 1945 and earlier), 36 percent Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964), 21.7 percent Gen X (born 1965 – 1980), 19.83 percent Millennials (born 1981 – 1994), and 14.22 percent Gen Z (born 1995 and later). The sample was representative of people in all ranges of personal annual income, with a quarter of the respondents indicating that they make over $170,000. 

Wine Type & Consumption Frequency Before and During COVID Lockdown

When consumers were asked about the type of wine and the frequency of consumption (Table 1) before and during lockdown measures in the US, results show that red wine was not only the most preferred wine before but 27 percent of consumers reported increasing red wine consumption during COVID lockdown. White wine, the second most popular before COVID, also showed a 22 percent increase in consumption during the pandemic. However, the majority of consumers reported that their consumption patterns didn’t change, and a small percentage (12 percent of red drinkers and 14 percent of white wine drinkers) said lower consumption. Rosé, sparkling, and dessert wines showed less variation. These results are consistent with prior research indicating a slight increase in general wine consumption during times of crisis or economic problems.

Motivations for Drinking Wine During the Lockdown

When asked “Which of the following reasons describe why you are drinking wine now, here’s what they had to say. 

Figure 1: Motivations for Drinking Wine During COVID

Wine Drinking Occasions Before and During COVID Lockdown

Wine Purchase Outlets Before and During COVID Lockdown

Respondents were asked, “Before lockdown measures were implemented in the US, how often did you buy wine from each of the following types of wine. 

The results show that the majority of US consumers purchased wine at wine shops, supermarkets, and grocery stores before the COVID issues. When examining how much more wine consumers purchased through these channels during COVID, there was a clear difference between the buying patterns of High-Frequency wine consumers (those who drink wine once a week or more) and Occasional wine consumers (those who drink wine less than once per week). High-Frequency consumers reported increases of 30 to 35 percent in brick and mortar establishments, but nearly a 50 percent rise in purchasing more wine online. Even Occasional drinkers reported 15 percent and 18 percent growth in purchasing wine from a winery’s website and online wine retailer, respectively. This trend is supported by other sources, such as Nielson reporting large increases in online wine retail sales during the first phases of COVID lockdown. Many wineries also said upturns in their online sales during COVID when they adopted virtual tastings and online advertising to reach consumers. This is key because it will continue to grow even after a vaccine.

How Will This Effect the Future of Wine and Wine Sales?

This survey of American wine consumer behavior provides some clear glimpses into the types of wines, motivations, purchase locations, and wine prices that US consumers engaged in before and during the COVID crisis. The findings illustrate that American wine drinkers did increase their consumption and spending to some extent, as well as adopt new motivations for consuming wine during lockdown…so that part is good for winery owners. What will be interesting to see if these changes in behavior continue post-COVID and into 2021 and beyond. We say yes, but we’ll see. Will people continue to enjoy drinking wine at home with dinner more often now, or will they revert to dining out at restaurants at the same frequency they did in the past?  Of most interest is the change in purchase location, with nearly 50 percent of High-Frequency wine consumers reporting they purchased more wine from online venues during the crisis. This is huge and tells you to get very serious about your online sales and e-commerce on your website. Although visits to wineries are up from pent-up demand as things open up, once the newness subsides a little, so will in winery sales. It looks like tastings, the one activity to sell at the winery may change forever. Marketing has never been more critical too small to mid-size wineries now, and the more digital and creative, the better.